A Means to an End. The Biological Basis of Aging and Deathby William R ClarkOxford University Press, Oxford, UK.233 pages, US$ 27.500‐19‐512593‐2
I have read this book twice. Not because it is, as it claims on its cover, ‘… a highly readable, provocative account of some of the most far‐reaching and controversial questions we are likely to ask in the next century...,’ but because I was desperately trying to find something positive, something praiseworthy to say about it. One good thing I found is the Greek mythological story of the three sisters Klothos, Lachesis and Atropos who spin, apportion and cut the thread of life, respectively. There is more imagination, vision and suggestion in this 250‐word myth mentioned in the opening pages of the book than in the remaining 233 pages.
In recent years, the market has been flooded with books on aging, covering the whole range from serious discussions of the theories and mechanisms of aging to self‐help, quick‐fix anti‐aging miracles. Fortunately, this book does not belong to the latter category of books that give a bad name to the field of aging research. On the other hand, it does not contribute anything new to the field of biogerontology either. I could not find out to what ‘End’ this book is ‘A Means’!
In his brief introduction, Clark compares the state of aging research with that of cancer research and expresses his hope for unified DNA‐based answers to the complex phenomenon of aging. In the rest of the book, the author treads a well‐trodden path of reviewing the whole field of biogerontology in 10 chapters. The book starts with a description of lifespan curves, maximum lifespans for selected species, and outdated correlations of body weight with maximum lifespan, before it goes on to a superficial discussion of the nature and evolution of senescence and death. What could have been an important discussion of the developmental genetics of senescence and lifespan, and the nature of senescence repressor and senescence effector gerontogenes is marred by an almost mystical presentation of ‘death is the default state’ kind of ideas. Clark briefly discusses premature aging syndromes, before he returns the reader's attention to Leonard Hayflick's discovery that somatic cells can undergo only a limited number of replications. It would have been instructive if the author had expanded on the important role of telomeres and telomerase. Even the chapter on the immunology of aging, which is supposedly the author's field of research, is superficial and uncritical. The remaining chapters are just general overviews of the research on the anti‐aging and life‐prolonging effects of calorie restriction, the role of free radicals and other oxidative stress in the occurrence and accumulation of macromolecular damage, and the aging of the brain. In the final chapter, ‘A Conditional Benefit’, William Clark makes an unsuccessful attempt to reduce aging and longevity to the genome, and to argue for life style modulations to achieve a healthy old age.
‘A Means to an End’ serves nobody's purpose. It neither quenches the public's thirst for scandal, miracle cures and false hopes, nor does it strike an intellectual chord with scientists. Indeed, the author is certainly not going to make either money or his name from the book. Although factually correct, the overall tone of the book is impersonal, uncritical and unexciting. The limited bibliography at the end does no justice to the vast literature available in the field of gerontology. In my view, the author of four previous books on immunology, sex and molecular medicine could and should have done much better in his fifth book on aging and death.
- Copyright © 2000 European Molecular Biology Organization
The author is at the Danish Centre for Molecular Gerontology at the University of Aarhus, Denmark. E‐mail: